History has given Henry Ford a lot of justly-earned credit for building and selling automobiles so affordably that they could be enjoyed by the masses - not just those with deep pockets. Long before Mr. Ford’s entry into the transportation business, though, there were countless other horse-drawn vehicle makers with a similar business plan; one focused on creating a quality set of wheels that individuals could afford in business and pleasure. While Ford encountered numerous challenges in his commitment to building a better mousetrap, America’s earliest transportation pioneers were also continually faced with the trials of maintaining a successful business. Manufacturing requirements, raw material availability, a viable labor supply, marketing, sales, warranties, resale values, loyalty, competition, distribution channels and a myriad of other issues were dealt with daily.
Far from being small-time business neophytes, many early makers of vehicles used throughout the U.S. were educated and business-savvy. Even in the 1800’s, some of the biggest wagon builders were finishing tens of thousands of wagons per year. In fact, during Studebaker’s peak production years, the firm boasted that it finished a vehicle every six minutes. The legendary brand also claimed to have built – and sold – a million wagons in the decade between 1897 and 1907†. By any measure, those are impressive numbers. Equally noteworthy is the mechanization and repeatable factory processes that were employed to accomplish such feats of mass production.
While some small blacksmith shops may have still been hammering out hand-forged iron work in the late 1800’s, most western vehicle builders of any size had recognized the value of time as it related to profits. Hence, as the turn of the 20th century approached, these larger manufacturers may have been engaged in forging some parts but they were often using cast and pre-formed pieces available from wholesale outlets.
As pointed out in Thomas Kinney’s book, “The Carriage Trade: Making Horse Drawn Vehicles in America,” these early vehicle makers clearly recognized that ‘time is money.’ As a result, there were entire subgroups of companies that sprang up to provide equipment, parts, and supplies to assist with more rapid production of quality western vehicles. This was not just working faster, it was working smarter and, in most cases, delivering a higher quality product in a more timely manner. At its core, this involved very similar business thoughts as those covered in some of the most elite corporate boardrooms of today.
A growing agricultural economy along with the Civil War, with its massive need for vehicles, did its part in driving innovation and productivity. Numerous technological advances and specially fabricated machines were introduced during this timeframe. Patents for automatic axle lathes were issued as early as the 1860’s with designs committed to greater accuracy, speed, efficiency, and productivity.
Eventually, other instruments engineered for even higher production capacities were also introduced. Heavy equipment like automatic spoke lathes, spoke throating machines, belt polishers, and felloe sawing machines were joined by automatic hub mortisers, automatic wagon box floor nailers, and wagon box boring machines for gang drilling all of the holes at one time in the box sides of a wagon. Each innovation made the production process more efficient, vehicles more affordable, profits more attainable, and customers more satisfied with the final product. Collectively, it was a commitment to excellence that’s still reflected in rolling works of art all over the country.
† Wheels That Won The West® Archives, www.wheelsthatwonthewest.com